Saturday, April 15, 2017

Retro-Shock Bonus Round: Let's Scare Jessica to Death (1970)

Maybe this is more specific to New Englanders than it is to fans in other countries and regions but as a lifelong Massachusetts resident, I've got my short list of "fall" horror movies that I have to watch each year as autumn rolls around and the leaves start to change, the days get shorter, and the air gets cooler - movies that embody the spirit of the season itself.

Permanently at the top of that list for me is director John Hancock’s uncommonly delicate 1970 spook show, Let’s Scare Jessica To Death.

Everything about this movie suggests an autumnal fragility, starting with its titular heroine as played by Zorpha Lambert. The film opens with a pre-title sequence that introduces us to Jessica seated alone in a small rowboat in the middle of a lake, quietly sitting in the light of early dawn.

In voiceover, her words set the tone of mournful, melancholy uncertainty for what will follow: "I sit here and I can't believe that it happened. And yet I have to believe it. Dreams or nightmares, madness or sanity. I don't know which is which." The film then flashes back to the previous few days of Jessica's life, ultimately bringing us back full circle to this moment on the lake.

Days earlier, a more hopeful Jessica arrived at her new Connecticut home on an apple farm along with her musician husband Duncan (Barton Heyman) and their friend Woody (Kevin O'Connor). Jessica was recently released from a stay at a mental institution following treatment for a nervous breakdown and she and Duncan hope that their new life in the country will be a change for the better.

When the free spirited trio start to move into their new rural digs, however, they're startled to find a young vagabond named Emily (Mariclare Costello) freely enjoying the shelter of their empty house.

This being the early '70s, once the initial shock of finding an intruder passes, rather than calling the police on Emily, these groovy, hippie era types greet their squatter as a welcome new addition to the household. And because Emily is such an appealing free spirit – as well as a stunning, red-headed beauty who Woody has eyes for – she soon is officially invited into the home as a permanent addition.

It isn't long, though, before Emily's presence is perceived as sinister by Jessica. Not only is Emily a threat to Jessica's marriage by being a sexual temptation to Duncan but she senses something more fundamentally wrong with Emily. Through a conversation with the local antique dealer, they learn that the home they're living in was the scene of a tragedy years earlier which involved Abigail Bishop, a bride who drowned in 1880 prior to her wedding. Her body was never recovered and legend says she still exists, roaming the area.

Discovering pictures of Abigail left behind in the attic of the house, Jessica sees that the doomed bride bears a striking resemblance to Emily. Given her mental history, however, Jessica is more likely to believe she's suffering a relapse then to think her wild suspicions have merit. But even though the film's title suggests that there may be a possible Gaslight-esque plot at work against Jessica, we know that Emily really is either a ghost, a vampire or some kind of ghoul.

One of the most intriguing aspects of Jessica is how Emily embodies qualities of both vampirism and the walking dead, but yet doesn't conform to the established folklore of either. Whatever her true nature is, Emily has converted the town folk around her (most of whom seem to be elderly - and all of whom have contempt for the bohemian ways of Jessica, Duncan and Woody) into a cabal of undead followers.

In an imaginative new wrinkle to vampire lore, she brings victims over to her side by slicing them with a knife (never in the same spot - sometimes it's seen on the forearm, sometimes hidden behind the ear - so it's always an eerie surprise when we see a character bearing that telltale incision) and then drinking their blood. Only for one key victim does she resort to the traditional neck bite.

But rather than becoming what we would recognize as familiar zombies or creatures of the night, these people simply bandage themselves (which makes for a creepy visual to see a town full of people all sporting random, unexplained wounds - as Duncan says of his conspicuously bandaged neighbors: "I bet they're left over from the Civil War!") and walk around freely in the daylight. In this aspect, Jessica is as much a "pod" movie as it is a vampire or zombie film, recalling the transformations of Invasion of the Body Snatchers in which people look the same and act the same but yet are no longer human.

Set in Connecticut in the fall, with its ripe red-orange foliage, Hancock's film is more lyrical than it is lurid - informed by an autumnal sense of decay. And there's a mournful, elegiac mood (augmented by Orville Stoeber's score) that pervades the film, embodied in a verse Jessica finds on a gravestone: "Frail as the leaves that shiver on a spray/Like them, we flourish/Like them, decay."

Death is a constant but not unwelcome presence in Jessica. Not only do Jessica, Duncan and Woody get around in a hearse rather than in a hippie van (as Woody cheerfully jokes about their macabre form of transportation to their disapproving new neighbors - "It's cheaper than a station wagon!") but the first stop they make upon arriving in their new town is to the local cemetery so Jessica can indulge her hobby of making grave-rubbings (which, with their poignant reminders of life's brevity, paper the walls of her and Duncan's bedroom). And on their first night in the old Bishop place, Jessica and co. conduct an impromptu séance to welcome all the souls of those who have ever passed in their new home to communicate with them (as Jessica earnestly implores, "Give us a sign!"). But yet, even with the hearse, the grave rubbings, the seance, this group isn't depicted as being gothic or morbid or (Jessica's issues notwithstanding) depressed.

This flower child attitude towards death (the word "Love" is painted on their hearse) may explain why Emily is never quite depicted as being a force of evil, even as she causes the deaths of several people. In fact, Emily is more passive than almost any other 'villain' in film history and that unusual quality informs Jessica's final moments.

In the end, we see how Jessica escapes the grasp of Emily and her mob of ghouls by finding refuge in the rowboat. But as Emily and her followers all standing on the shore watching Jessica give up one by one and saunter off back to their haunted town, it's with a peculiar resigned sadness - not for themselves, we sense, but towards Jessica herself.

In the end, unlike most movie monsters, Emily isn't vanquished for the sake of restoring normalcy and she doesn't walk away with a monster's frustration of having failed to claim another victim but instead as a lost soul who carries a different air of regret altogether.

For many modern viewers, Let's Scare Jessica To Death may be far too gentle in its sensibilities to sustain much interest. But for me, it's a movie that struck me as being perfect since I first came across it on TV one cold October afternoon in 1984.

Lambert's heartfelt performance was something that I hadn't encountered before in a horror film - rather than the usual feisty, empowered resourcefulness that horror heroines typically embodied, this was real emotion and real, adult heartbreak. The scenes in which we see Jessica's relationship with Duncan unraveling are genuinely agonizing to watch. The crumbling of Jessica's marriage under the weight of her mental issues and Duncan's unhappiness is depicted here with as much seriousness and sensitivity as in any straight drama.

It took me years to realize exactly what made this film so special to me, but over time it became clear: Let's Scare Jessica To Death remains the one horror film to truly convey that what really scares us in this life, what we really dread, isn't death - it's just loneliness.

Nothing else can compete with that.

...That's a wrap on all my RST material. I don't know why I was sitting on this one but for some reason, I never sent it out. But as Jessica is one of my all-time favorites, it's probably appropriate to end on this note. Thanks for reading!

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Retro-Shock Bonus Round: Day of the Dead (1985)

My previous Retro-Shock Theater post - for The City of the Dead - marked the final RST column that appeared on Shock Till You Drop. Going through my old files, however, I've come across a couple of RST columns that were completed but, for whatever reason, never ran.

This one, for Day of the Dead, would've coincided with the release of the teen zombie romantic comedy Warm Bodies (I bet you totally forgot that movie even existed - I know I did!) on February 1st, 2013 but I guess the clock ran out and I thought I'd be better off getting a My Bloody Valentine write-up ready to go instead. Seems plausible.

Anyhow, here's some Day of the Dead love for ya!


Some hardcore horror fans might balk at the idea of a romantically inclined zombie as portrayed in Warm Bodies because zombies just aren’t meant to be cuddly, damn it! But while the undead character of “R” might be more photogenic and more palatable as a love interest than the average flesh eater, the idea of a “good” zombie was validated and approved by the godfather of the modern zombie movie himself, George A. Romero, in 1985’s Day of the Dead.

He might not have qualified as choice dating material but the lead zombie of Day of the Dead, dubbed “Bub” (Howard Sherman) by scientist/father figure Dr. Logan (Richard Liberty), was certainly endearing and was instantly embraced by horror fans as the first "lovable" zombie.

Romero had already planted the seeds for Bub in Dawn of the Dead (1978) by showing a growing empathy for his shambling undead hordes. When Fran (Gaylen Ross) kindly frees a zombie nun whose habit is trapped in a door, there’s an acknowledgement of the creature's buried humanity. And at the climax of the film, one zombie is fascinated by a rifle and trades it for Peter’s rifle, showing a dim thought process existing beyond that primal appetite for flesh.

But even though Romero allowed his zombies to be more than just slow-moving targets to be picked off in Dawn, it was still a big creative leap from their depiction in that film to having Bub command so much audience sympathy in Day. The film itself is the most abrasive of Romero’s original Dead trilogy but the character of Bub himself is undeniably soulful. Tom Savini’s make-up for actor Howard Sherman ranks among his best work, looking appropriately grisly while allowing Sherman to express a full range of emotion.

Compare the make-up on Sherman to the look of “Big Daddy”, the lead zombie Eugene Clark played in Land of the Dead (2005). Big Daddy was a character clearly created in the mold of Bub but that never achieved the same emotional connection with audiences, and I think that was in large part to the stiff, heavy make-up burying the actor's face. He simply looked too monstrous, his expression frozen in a permanent snarl, while Sherman as Bub was able to convey gentleness in the best tradition of Frankenstein’s Monster.

Even though the zombies currently seen in TV's The Walking Dead and Warm Bodies might be made with more state-of-the-art technical prowess, they haven’t surpassed the work that Tom Savini and his crew did in Day. Less than ten years on from the simple blue faced zombies of Dawn, Savini was able to use the advances in prosthetic makeup that took place in the short interim between Dawn and Day to create the greatest array of zombies ever.

Bub is arguably the most sympathetic figure in Day of the Dead, his only true competition for that spot being John, the laid back helicopter pilot played with a thick Jamaican accent by Terry Alexander. Who else is there? You've got the deranged Logan, the strong-willed and strident – often to her detriment – Sarah (Lori Cardille), her emotionally fragile boyfriend Miguel (Anthony Dileo Jr), good hearted but perennially sauced Bill (Jarlath Conroy), and then the perpetually enraged Captain Rhodes (Joe Pilato) and his crew of murderous assholes – this is a seriously flawed group of individuals. Even the good guys in Day are not so easy to warm up to.

One of the biggest criticisms of Day upon its original release – and, really, to this day – is that the characters are just too unlikeable, that they’re all pitched at such a high level of antagonism that they’re not endearing in the way that Peter, Roger, Fran, and Steven were in Dawn of the Dead. Worse than that, there's the accusation is that many of them are simply not believable as people. Because, really, who acts like this? But I would say Day shows Romero working even more ahead of the social curve than usual. The bitter bickering that goes on in Day, ultimately escalating to the point of homicidal rage, may have seemed outrageous in 1985 but it seems very much in tune with our world today.

We now live in an age more bitterly divided than at any time most people can recall. We are more ideologically separated than ever and the tone of public discourse on pretty much everything seems to have deteriorated to the point of insanity.

When the father of a slain child in the Newtown shooting is angrily berated at in a public meeting by gun advocates, you have to wonder where basic civility and decency has gone. It’s like the entire country has become its own version of the underground caverns of Day of the Dead – we’re all trapped with each other and the animosity and hate is rising by the day.

Day might not have spoken to the mood of the ‘80s so much but it speaks to today’s world with an uncanny accuracy. Captain Rhodes might’ve once seemed shrill to the point of cartoonishness but his coarse, seething demeanor is right in line with that of many modern pundits.

And yet, there’s also the argument that Rhodes has his points. His rage is not completely unfounded. After all, his slain men have been fed to Bub - a despicable move on Logan's part. His psychopathic anger is, to some extent, justified. Why wouldn’t he want payback against anyone who'd show so little regard for the value of his men's lives that they'd callously use them as servings of zombie chow? 

Rhodes may be unhinged but Logan is just as nuts in his own way and it’s the stubborn, intractable separation of camps and the unbending need for one tribe to win over the other that ultimately makes life together unlivable. As John says to a frustrated Sarah: “…That’s the trouble with the world…people got different ideas concerning what they want out of life.” Day of the Dead is almost thirty years old but it’s more a movie of the current day than anything in theaters now.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Retro-Shock Theater: The City of the Dead aka Horror Hotel (1960)

Back in my school days, I never went the extra scholastic mile.

Maybe it was because it seemed like too much of a brown-nosey thing to do but more likely I’d have to chalk it up to laziness. Either way, I never went above and beyond for any assignment. If only Nan Barlow (Venetia Stevenson), the academically ambitious heroine of 1960’s The City of the Dead (aka Horror Hotel), had shared my same apathetic attitude.

A rapt student of history teacher Professor Alan Driscoll (Christopher Lee), Nan doesn’t plan on just phoning in her senior paper on witchcraft. No, this eager young woman is going to do way more than just regurgitate what she can research in the school library. She plans to use some vacation time to visit a real town where witches reportedly once lived and uncover the hidden history behind those dark days of old when people were burned alive for dabbling in the black arts.

When Nan informs Professor Driscoll of her plans, he knows just where to send this irrepressible go-getter – the sleepy town of Whitewood, Massachusetts, a place where time seems to have stood still. As viewers, we know from the jump that witchcraft is alive and well in Whitewood. Especially as we recognize the owner of the local inn, Mrs. Newell (Patricia Jessel), as Elizabeth Selwyn, a witch that was burned at the stake in the film’s 17th century-set opening scene and who pledged her eternal life to Satan if he would spare her from death. Clearly that sounded good to Satan as Elizabeth is alive and well in the present, running the Whitewood establishment known as The Raven’s Inn.

As soon as Nan enters Whitewood, she’s in way over her head without knowing it. Her brother Richard (Dennis Lotis) and boyfriend Bill (Tom Naylor) had tried to warn her off from taking this trip but there was no talking sense to headstrong Nan and now she’s about to find out way more than she ever wanted to about the world of witchcraft. Nan isn’t a particularly vividly drawn heroine but her plucky yet unabrasive nature is enough to get us on her side and the icy-mannered Mrs. Newell certainly makes us fear for Nan’s well-being – especially as Nan doesn’t have much of a head for self-preservation. Even with the foreboding, hostile atmosphere Nan encounters during her short time in Whitewood, when she discovers a trap door in her room leading into a dank underground cavern, her inquisitive, incautious, nature compels her to investigate rather than to play it safe.

As a result, Nan earns a crushing “F” in survival instincts as (spoiler alert!) her life comes to an abrupt end, sacrificed at the hands of Elizabeth Selwyn and her coven in the name of Satan. So much about The City of the Dead is hokey – pleasingly so, it should be said – that Nan’s cruel, sudden dispatching comes as a genuine surprise midway through what had seemed to be such a mild mannered film.

The City of the Dead came out within months of Psycho in 1960 and much has been made of the fact that both films have their apparent heroines murdered early on. Unlike the taboo-breaking Psycho, though, which has the audience expecting to be taken to some dark places well before Marion Crane ever sets foot in the shower, The City of the Dead is old-fashioned and innocuous until the point where Nan’s life is snuffed out. And that “safe” tone that it has almost – almost – makes Nan’s death even more of a sucker punch than Marion Crane’s.

There’s an element of sin involved in Marion’s death. She transgresses when she steals that money and even though she doesn’t deserve to pay for that crime with her life, we have that underlying sense that she put herself in a position for something bad to happen to her. Maybe it relates to our own subconscious fears of what would happen to us if we should ever “go a little mad” ourselves – that we’d somehow pay for it in some terrible, random way; that the universe would see our crime and make us answer for it. Nan, however, is a good girl through and through. For crying out loud, she’s only in Whitewood in the first place because she wanted to write a really kick-ass senior paper!

She’s a heroine that belongs on the cover of a kid’s mystery novel, shining a flashlight through a cobwebbed corridor – and in fact, that is exactly what she’s doing just before she’s dragged to her death. When she dies, it’s as if Nancy Drew had gotten her throat slit halfway through “The Secret of the Old Clock.”

As in the wake of Marion’s death in Psycho, it’s up to those around Nan to carry on the story after she’s gone. When weeks go by and Nan hasn’t been heard from, a concerned Richard and Bill head separately to Whitewood to find her and while they might not be as easily taken out as poor Nan was, Elizabeth Selwyn and her coven still possess the home turf advantage.

Everything culminates in a slam-bang finale that still ranks as one of the most pulse-pounding in horror. Nan’s death may be the film’s most shocking moment but the climax is stunning it its own right as the shadow of a cross is used to set the witches ablaze.

Directed by first-time feature helmer John Llewellyn Moxey (who would direct the original Kolchak TV movie, 1973’s The Night Stalker), this UK film was also the first to be produced by future head of Amicus, Milton Subotsky.

Still more of a cherished cult item even all these years later rather than a widely known classic, The City of the Dead is pretty near-perfect. It’s in crisp black and white, it’s entirely set-bound (which gives the “outdoor” scenes in Whitewood an off-kilter, artificial feel), it’s got horror royalty in the form of Christopher Lee, and Whitewood is shrouded in thick fog, just like a town in a horror movie ought to be (making it all the better for processions of dark-robed figures to wander their way through).

I’m not usually one to pine away for the good old days but watching The City of the Dead, it’s hard not to feel a pang of sadness knowing that the likes of this will never come again. Witches are in vogue now thanks to recent films like Oz: The Great and Powerful and The Lords of Salem as well as the upcoming season of American Horror Story but few can compete with The City of the Dead’s still-potent brand of witches brew.

Originally published 10/9/13 at Shock Till You Drop